Democrats expand ground game to woo Latinos in Nevada

Democratic presidential candidates are ramping up efforts to win over Latinos in Nevada, a key voting bloc that will prove critical for the nomination and the party's prospects in 2020.

Nevada holds symbolic importance for Latino groups nationwide as a key state where Democratic political power relies on Hispanic inclusion.

Latino groups are already concerned that Democrats are not investing enough to pursue the country's second-largest voting bloc even as it could prove critical in determining whether the party can defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpRouhani says Iran will never seek nuclear weapons Trump downplays seriousness of injuries in Iran attack after US soldiers treated for concussions Trump says Bloomberg is 'wasting his money' on 2020 campaign MORE in November.

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"We have seen in the past a lot of promises, and when it comes time to govern we have seen they forget about the Latino community," said Héctor Sánchez, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a grassroots organization dedicated to growing Latino voter engagement.

Sánchez sat down for a public interview with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump says impeachment lawyers were 'really good' MORE in Las Vegas on Saturday and will later host former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE as well as other Democratic contenders.

"This is part of our strategy to make sure we keep all the presidential candidates accountable," Sánchez said about his interviews.

"I want to make sure that we cover all the different issues, but our top priorities for our community [are] the economy, health care, education, workers rights, climate change, and obviously we want very specific elements of immigration to make sure that there is an understanding of how finally as a nation we are going to get immigration reform to the final line," added Sánchez.

Nevada is set to hold its caucus on Feb. 22, just days after Democrats cast their votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Latinos have been credited with helping move the state from Republican control to a solid blue state in less than a decade.

Nevada proved a silver lining in an otherwise disastrous 2016 election for Democrats, when the state turned out for then-nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump on Clinton's Sanders comments: 'She's the one that people don't like' Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE and handed Democrats a Senate seat, control of the local legislature as well as the House delegation.

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Besides Biden, other Democrats set to descend into Nevada this weekend include Buttigieg, who is meeting with Nevada's powerful Culinary Union, and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Sanders holds four-point lead on Biden in new California poll MORE (D-Minn.), who will attend meet-and-greets in Las Vegas and Reno.

Meanwhile, former presidential candidate Julián Castro, who was the most high-profile Latino candidate in the 2020 race, is stumping for Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE (D-Mass.) in Nevada this weekend, while supporters of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump on Clinton's Sanders comments: 'She's the one that people don't like' MORE (I-Vt.) will host a series of canvassing events.

Polling in Nevada has been sparse, with a Fox News poll this week showing Biden leading the field with 23 percent support, followed by Sanders at 17 percent.

But strategists note the race is still fluid in terms of Latino voters.

"This race is wide open for whatever candidate wants to aggressively go after the Latino vote. That starts in Nevada," said Kristian Ramos, a consultant and former communications chief for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

"It's a very complicated caucus process, so you do have to invest resources and time and people to truly make an impact there," added Ramos. "That can make or break a campaign in Nevada."

Latino voters are more expensive to reach traditionally, as they are more prone to having language barriers than other major voting blocs and historically have been more reluctant to engage in the entire voting process, from registration to voting.

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Two issues that consistently dog low-propensity Latino voters are the fact that they're not regularly contacted by campaigns and in many cases face bureaucratic obstacles toward voter registration.

Nevada's workforce also tends to be more transient than in other states because of the hiring and labor practices of the tourism industry, which dominates the local economy.

But that workforce is also more likely to be organized under unions, a structure familiar to Democratic Party organizers.

And according to most surveys, once Latinos register and engage in the voting process, they become more likely than other demographic groups to participate in future elections.

Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser for Sanders, said he believes his campaign is ahead of other Democratic rivals in Nevada and among Latino voters nationally.

"You know why? Because we started a communication strategy, targeting Latinos in Nevada, starting in June of last year, and the first communications we did to voters in Nevada were bilingual communications to the Latino community," said Rocha.

"Most campaigns target the Latino community last in an election. We turned that on its head and targeted them first," Rocha added.

Prior to joining Sanders's campaign as a top adviser, Rocha was sharply critical of the Democratic establishment's tendency to invest late in Latino voters or to engage them after key registration deadlines had passed, which left them unconvinced of campaigns' commitment to the community.

"In every election I've ever worked in, everybody shows up at the end to start talking to Latinos and running some kind of a bilingual program weeks before election day. We've done things differently, very intentionally, and have been working in those communities now for going on eight months. And we think that long-term organizing will pay off," said Rocha.

Still, the Sanders campaign had the advantage of a campaign bank account and name recognition left over from the 2016 campaign, and the almost-certain knowledge that the Vermont senator would mount a 2020 push.

A representative for Buttigieg told The Hill that its campaign didn't have those benefits but has still built a structure focusing on cultural competency.

A boon for the Buttigieg campaign has been the candidate's fluency in Spanish, which allows him to narrate his own audiovisual materials in the language. No other top-tier candidate speaks Spanish.

The Buttigieg representative said 45 percent of the campaign's workers in the state are Hispanic and that it has focused on building a network of grassroots organizers.

Warren's campaign, aside from having a powerful surrogate in Castro, has also hired more than 50 full-time staffers, starting their ground operation in January 2019, according to a campaign representative.

Most campaigns have similar structures of different sizes; the Sanders campaign, for instance, employs Latinos at every level of the creative process for its campaign materials.

According to Ramos, the plurality of approaches and different-sized investments in state organizing are leading to what could be the most diverse caucus process in Nevada history.

"Because you have more candidates doing caucus trainings overall, there is a lot of training occurring," said Ramos.

And the Nevada caucus could have a snowball effect with major repercussions for the presidential nomination.

The caucus takes place on Feb. 22, as some Californians will already be sending their mail-in ballots.

The big prizes on Super Tuesday on March 3 are California and Texas, the two states with the largest Latino voting populations in the country.

"This is a momentum and an optics issue and Nevada — you win there, you go to California with the wind at your back," said Ramos.

"I think it increases the Latino vote clout. This is a highly engaged population, and in elections past they haven't always had the ability to make their voices heard," he added.